Surface Pro Explained by Microsoft's Engineering Team

The Microsoft Surface team fielded questions on Wednesday about the company's forthcoming Surface with Windows 8 Pro tablet.

The Q&A was published in a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) session. Surface team members offered a few insights about Microsoft's latest tablet device, which is expected to arrive in retail stores and the Microsoft Store this Saturday. The Surface Pro runs on Intel's Core i5 Ivy Bridge line of processors for x86 hardware, promising PC performance in a tablet-size machine, with the ability to run older Windows 7 applications. Microsoft also makes the Surface with Windows RT tablet using ARM processors, which only runs Windows Store apps. Back in October, the Microsoft Surface team also fielded questions about the Surface RT in a different Reddit session.

As for why Microsoft didn't release both Surface devices at the same time, the Surface team had a simple answer. Namely, Surface RT development started three months before Surface Pro development.

Connector and Port Questions
The Reddit session had lots of talk about connectors and ports, especially a pointed question about the "new connectors on the bottom of the Surface Pro." The Microsoft team referred to these connectors as "the accessory spine" and that it was designed for "future peripherals that can click in and do more." The team wouldn't say what future peripherals those would be, but hinted that it might be possible to attach an external battery pack to the Surface Pro. A Microsoft spokesperson, when asked about the accessory spine, indicated via e-mail that the company had nothing further to share.

The Surface Pro has a Mini DisplayPort interface for connecting display devices, although it also can be used for other data transmissions. When used with an adapter, it can support HDMI, DVI and VGA interfaces, according to a DisplayPort industry site. This flexibility apparently explains why the Surface Pro lacks an HDMI interface.

"Displayport on Pro can drive an external monitor with resolutions up to 2560x1600p," stated Ed from Microsoft's hardware development team, in the Reddit post. "We wanted to give the most flexibility with monitors available today, and generally speaking most HDMI monitors are limited to 1080p."

Battery Life Question
Microsoft's specs for the Surface Pro state that users get 42 Watt-hours from the machine's battery, which isn't very helpful. Product reviews are showing that this spec translates to about four hours to five hours, or sometimes just three hours, before having to recharge the Surface Pro. When asked why Microsoft uses the "Watt-hours" measure in describing the Surface battery life, the Microsoft spokesperson said that "we rate our batteries in watt-hours because this rating is more appropriate given mixed voltages and currents inside the device."

In any case, Reddit commenters found battery life to be an important criterion for using the Surface Pro. The Surface team explained that Microsoft selected the battery for the Surface Pro based on tapping Intel's Ivy Bridge processors. The company also wanted to keep the device under two pounds and keep it thin enough at 13.5 mm (0.5 inch) to facilitate the tablet experience.

The Microsoft team didn't respond to questions about Intel's Haswell family of chips. Those chips are expected to improve the power utilizations of ultrabook devices and may be used in future Surface Pro product releases. It's thought that Intel could release its Haswell chips by June of this year.

Solid-State Drive and Storage Questions
The Surface Pro will be sold in two models based on the size of the solid-state drive (SSD). One model will be sold with a 64-GB SSD; the other model will have a 128-GB SSD. However, those are the unloaded sizes of the drives. When the operating system components are added, users will have just 23 GB and 83 GB of storage space, respectively, available for use.

The Reddit audience got a confirmation from the Surface team about these storage space limitations, but final production units of the Surface Pro could have some additional free space.

"Initial reports out regarding available disk space were conservative (e.g., 23 GB available on 64 GB and 83 GB available on the 128 GB system)," stated Panos Panay, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Surface, in the Reddit session. "However our final production units are coming in with ~6-7 GB additional free space."

The team did point to a few options for storing personal files using Surface Pro. Users can save files using Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud-based storage service. They can also extend the device's storage by plugging in MicroSDXC and USB devices. Panay indicated that some of the space is taken up by a built-in recovery image, as well as Office bits.

While Microsoft describes the Surface as a "tablet PC," that doesn't mean users will be able to swap out components like they can do with a PC. When asked if Surface Pro users would be able to switch out the SSD for something with greater capacity in the near future, the Microsoft spokesperson denied it. "No, you can't swap out internal components," the spokesperson said.

Docking Station Question
Many of the Reddit session participants complained of a lack of a docking station with the Surface Pro. However, the Surface team seemed OK with using two cable connections instead, namely, a USB 3.0 connection and a power connection. Some docking station options apparently can be had, too.

"The docking connection is a great question; I have been using my pre-production unit as my main machine for a while now," stated Andrew Hill of the mechanical team. "When I am at my desk I plug in a Mini DisplayPort and a USB cable and go to work. Others among us take advantage of docking station solutions that are available to drive displays over USB 3."

Linux Secure Boot Question
Microsoft Windows 8 hardware requirements have inspired alarm among Linux developers because of Microsoft's use of so-called "secure boot" technology associated with the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface specification. The thought has been that Microsoft's requirements could make it impossible to dual boot Linux and Windows 8 on new emerging machines. Apparently, though, this is only true on ARM-based Windows RT machines, according to a report. The secure boot capability apparently can't be disabled on Windows RT ARM machines, but it can be disabled on Windows 8 x86-based machines. This latter point was confirmed by Microsoft during the Reddit session.

"Like other Windows 8 machines, you can access BIOS settings and turn off secure boot, enabling you to load other OSes," the Surface team said.

Improvements in Surface Pro
The display resolution is the same in both the Surface RT and Surface Pro machines, and the cameras on both devices stream at 720 pixels. However, there are a few hardware advantages to the Surface Pro, as described by Marc DesCamp of the Surface team.

"We did make improvements camera/video; we choose a new sensor to improve low light performance, a different ISP for video noise suppression (cleaner video) and included the True Color software feature," DesCamp wrote. "True Color analyzes the video stream to adjust gain, frames per second and integration time to improve the quality of the video stream you see especially in challenging lighting scenarios such as backlighting."

Additionally, the speakers used in the Surface Pro device are higher powered. However, Microsoft plans to update the speaker performance in its Surface RT model, according to the Surface team.

The Surface team is working on a high-resolution scale issue from the Surface Pro's 10.6-inch screen to an external display. It's also working on a way to "allow Libraries to work with SD Cards." Wi-Fi connections will be improved with a February 12 Windows Update, the Surface team promised. Microsoft also plans to sell "limited edition touch covers" this month in different colors.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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